Thursday 7 May 2009

Malta, Italy and Libya, recent story of a complex relation

It is a weird, complex and twisted story, therefore sit down, and brace yourself for the bumpy ride.

Malta after its independence was not an economically viable country.

The stories of the first Maltese ferry-boats who took Maltese people in Catania, Sicily, in the early seventies, for short shopping trips, are the stuff of legend.
They were poorer than the Spaniards at the time, which was quite an achievement.

Their problem was that their biggest income was the rental they were getting from the UK for a big naval base. In 1971, the Maltese started to ask an higher rental, and when the British government refused, they openly started to circulate rumours of offering the base to the Soviet Union.

This precipitated a crisis inside the NATO, with USA and Italy completely berserk at the idea that the Soviet Union could get hold of the naval base in Malta, and they not only pressured the UK to quadruply the rental, but started to financially support Malta directly.

This didn't work, and at some point in the 70s the Maltese government started to accept payments from Libya to close the base. This happened in 1979. At some point in the late 70s the Libyans even got to run the airport of Malta.

At the point, the Italian governments had already decided that it was strategically a necessity to keep Soviet Union, Libya or any potentially enemy power from their immediate doorstep, and they had started a policy of increasing the support of Malta, whatever the cost.

This policy was finally crowned in 1982, which was frankly precipitated from the SAIPEM 2 affair (which is mostly known in Italy as the "affare Maltese").

When oil was found in the Medina banks, the Maltese government awarded an exploitation license to Texaco, which commissioned ENI to start to put an oil rig there, the SAIPEM 2, to start to extract oil on behalf of the Maltese government.

The Libyans didn't find it very amusing, and in 1980 they sent their navy, ordering the Italians to pack home, and the Maltese to stay away.

The Italian government then stepped in decisively, and in the "Accordo sul Riconoscimento e la Garanzia della Neutralità di Malta" recognized on itself the role of international guarantor of Malta, its independence and neutrality.

Malta at that point get rid of the Libyans, and the territorial dispute was sent to the International Court of Justice, which decided in 1985, mostly in Malta favour (which is the reason why Malta's S&R area is so big).

Italy, as you may know, is truly a politically complex country, therefore while part of the government was backing Malta, another part was more or less secretly helping Libya, and another part even tried to carve out a big chunk of the Medina banks for itself.
This is happening also now, the Italian politicians don't have a shared policy towards the Maltese approach to their S&R supposed responsibilities (and as someone may say, it is unrealistic to expect Malta to really swell its population welcoming tens of thousands of boat people every year).

As unbelievable as it can seems even to many Italians, the "Strage di Ustica" and even, in minor measure, the "Strage di Bologna", have both been linked with the SAIPEM 2 affair (they are basically contemporary events).

The infamous rockets were fired to Lampedusa for another immediate reason, the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, but surely the Medina banks debacle at the ICJ was truly another good reason, from the point of view of the Libyans.

Anyway, with the Italian military guarantee and some financial support also from other NATO country, Libya kept at bay, and the revenues of the Medina banks, the Maltese started to reap the dividend of peace and neutrality, and they started (at last) to enrich (deservedly) themselves.

In my humble opinion, what they have achieved in the past 25 years, is even more remarkable of what places as Dubai have achieved in more or less the same time. Whatever they achieved, they did it under a democratically elected government, and with greater income equality (although until a few years ago they were still quite gender unbalanced, as women were gaining far less than men).

After entering in the EU, probably the Maltese don't need the Italian guaranty anymore, at last not anytime soon anyway, but as recently Italy and Libya have been moving closer and closer, probably from their point of view this relationship is becoming too dangerously close, and they may have started to itch the wrong way at the itching of others (again in my humble opinion, quite understandably).

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